Bo Xilai, the ousted former Chinese politician, continues to capture headlines even as Chinese authorities begin a highly concerted campaign to stifle online expression, Vincent Chao reports.
The trial of Bo Xilai, the once promising leader of China’s most populous city, ended on Monday with revelations about murder, corruption and torrid details of a love-triangle – offering the public a rare glimpse into the lives of China’s richest and most powerful politicians.
But outside the spotlight, authorities have directed an increasingly hostile campaign to limit free expression, especially online. Over the past few weeks, a growing number of journalists, bloggers and activists have been arrested or detained on vague and obscure charges. And last week, an official forum warned of new limits to what internet users should and should not say on social media.
Crackdowns on free press are not uncommon in China. Setting the latest actions apart is the concerted action to stifle online ‘opinion leaders’, whose posts are widely shared and distributed on Weibo – the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. The actions follow increasingly sophisticated censorship strategies ensured to block access to information on either government corruption or calls for collective action.
Liu Hu, a reporter for the Guangzhou-based New Express, is the latest individual to be detained, after he openly accused a senior government official of negligence in an online posting. In the widely shared report published last month, he quoted various sources to call for an investigation as to whether Ma Zhengchi, a former Chongqing vice mayor, deliberately undersold a publicly-run enterprise costing the state up to £2.6 million.
Interrogated in his home on Friday before his detention, Beijing police have since accused him of ‘fabricating false rumors’ which his lawyer denies.
Meanwhile, Charles Xue, a billionaire investor known for his 12 million Weibo followers, was also detained by police on Friday on charges of soliciting a prostitute. Commonly known by his alias, Xue Manzi, the naturalized US citizen routinely posted popular reform-minded content as well as commenting on other issues such as air quality and food safety, which was then widely shared.
His detention has triggered questions of whether the charges are politically motivated, given that Chinese authorities have used similar tactics to discredit commentators that fail to toe the official line in the past. In a post that was later erased, Hu Xijin, the editor of the state-run Global Times said: ‘Cannot rule out the possibility that authorities are arresting Xue Manzi with a prostitute to give him a hard time.’
The latest attempts to silence online expression appear to stem from China’s secretive Document No. 9, a copy of which the New York Times acquired earlier this month. Issued by the central party office, and believed to reflect the views of newly instated President Xi Jinping, the memo directed local party groups to suppress ideas of ‘western-inspired’ notions of media independence and civic participation, ostensibly in attempt to solidify the party’s grip on power.
It claimed that dissidents ‘have stirred up trouble about disclosing officials’ assets, using the Internet to fight corruption, media controls and other sensitive topics, to provoke discontent with the party and government.’
Since the release of the document in April, authorities have stepped up online controls by using a combination of hard and soft pressure against popular bloggers – the tiny minority of Weibo users believed to be responsible for the creation of more than 80 percent of original content. Invited to last week’s forum, several popular bloggers were reminded that posts must ‘uphold the socialist system’ and ‘guard the national interest.’
Such ideas have naturally attracted detractors, especially amongst China’s new and growing class of intellectuals eager to push the boundaries of government regulation. But those calls are becoming fewer and further between, especially in recent weeks.
Charges were laid earlier this month against Zhou Lubao, an activist famously known for exposing the lavish lifestyle enjoyed by a mayor of a provincial city, which included a £21,000 watch. Having went on to analyze the watches of other prominent officials, Zhou’s Weibo account has since been deactivated amid police accusations that he ‘extorted money’ from the subjects of his disclosures.
In addition, two other prominent bloggers have also since been detained for ‘spreading false rumors’ online.
The hardline approach against online expression comes amid some disappointment by earlier supporters of Xi, who was initially believed to be a supporter of gradual social and political reform. But it could also represent efforts to manage commentary as Xi consolidates power following Beijing’s once-a-decade leadership change and the Bo Xilai affair, its biggest political scandal in decades.
What’s more clear is that authorities are gaining a clearer definition of what the internet, now accessed by almost 600 million Chinese users, should – and should not – be used for. Both the high-profile detentions of Hu and Xue, announced by police on Weibo, appear to be designed to send a message that whistleblowing and political discussion have no place online, despite state-run media being initially supportive of such efforts.
A state-run People’s Daily editorial, for example, on Monday remarked that it wanted the internet to become a more ‘orderly’ place, where users were held ‘responsible for their remarks.’ The Global Times added that ‘the internet needs moral regulations’ with authorities handling prior cases ‘too softly, which has allowed rumor mongering to spiral out of control.’
These details come despite their own efforts by Chinese authorities to expand their use of social media as a medium of communication, as seen during the Bo Xilai trial.
For a major corruption case, the media frenzy was near unprecedented. Even official media, typically silent on major corruption cases, have lauded the ‘open and transparent’ trial, reported hour by hour on an official Weibo account, which it claims symbolizes more public scrutiny and an important guarantee of a fair trial.